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End of a golden era? Five myths about late-night

"Late Show" host David Letterman explains how the Springer Spaniel "Dutch" manipulates the ball in a pinball machine while owner Doreen Danli encourages him on Wednesday, May 8, 1996 in San Francisco. "Dutch," of Burlingame, Calif., was in the Stupid Pet Tricks segment of the "Late Show," which had moved to the Bay Area for a week. Photo Credit: AP / Tony Esparza

From the first "Tonight Show," hosted by Steve Allen in 1954, late-night TV has been something we talk about, laugh at, quote and debate. Whether you tuned in to Letterman or Leno, faithfully watch one of the Jimmies, or are torn between Jon and Conan, chances are you hold certain notions about late night and its hosts. In honor of David Letterman's final show this coming week, here are five myths about late-night TV that it's time we debunk.

1. Celebrities are good guests.

Late-night shows have long followed a formula established by the great Carson. (For those under 40, that's Johnny Carson, not Carson Daly.) There's a monologue, a sketch or two, a music act and, of course, celebrity interviews. In two decades of writing for Jay Leno, I was asked countless times about the "fascinating" stars I got to meet. Let me set the record straight.

First, writers were too busy pounding out jokes for the next night's show in our 4-by-6-foot offices to meet the celebs when they arrived at the studio. Plus, most writers are so unattractive, the stars had restraining orders against us to ensure they had no interaction with people holding inferior genes.

But the truth is that the vast majority of celebs who come on these shows are not the best conversationalists. Less politely, they are boring. They're there to promote a movie and leave. Asked what they think of the latest trade agreement, they'd freeze up more than Tom Brady when he's asked about deflated footballs. A lot of guests are film actors who submerge themselves into the characters they play. When they have a chance to talk about who they are and what they really think, in the words of Gertrude Stein about Oakland, Calif., there's no there there. For example, Hayden Christensen. Remember him, Anakin Skywalker? No? My point exactly.

There are exceptions, including Tom Hanks, Helen Mirren, Emma Stone and Hugh Jackman, but generally the celebs are duds. Too many of the younger actors live in a PR-team-controlled bubble and won't say enough to even let us find out if they might be interesting. Comics, on the other hand, make great guests. Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Chelsea Handler, Chris Rock, Steve Martin, Roseanne Barr - they're used to being themselves, they come prepared, and they always kill on late night.

2. Women can't host late night.

This pernicious myth appears to be held most tightly by the TV executives who refuse to appoint a woman to a prime late-night hosting gig. After Trevor Noah was named Jon Stewart's heir on "The Daily Show," Comedy Central President Michele Ganeless was asked why a woman wasn't selected. She said: "We talked to women. We talked to men. We found in Trevor the best person for the job." Remarkably, every other network has also found that a man is best for the job of hosting its marquee late-night program.

And they're wrong. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were in essence late-night hosts on "Saturday Night Live." Handler and Wanda Sykes both had great late-night shows. "Daily Show" alumna Samantha Bee is getting a gig at TBS. And Amy Schumer is terrific at 10:30 - you mean to tell me she would be less funny an hour later? So come on, network executives: The next major late-night job should go to one of the female stars out there. Or create an opening right after prime time. Viewers could use an hour of great comedy from a female host more than they need a late-night rerun of "CSI: Des Moines."

3. Late night goes easy on President Barack Obama.

When Barack Obama was campaigning in 2008, The New York Times suggested that some late-night writers were "favorably disposed toward Mr. Obama, to a degree that perhaps leaves them more resistant to jokes about him than those about most previous candidates." In other words, writers were too liberal to mock Obama - who wasn't mockable, anyway.

Sure he is. And late-night comics do jokes about him all the time. He's tougher to make fun of than some presidents, as he hasn't gotten caught with his pants around his ankles or invaded Iraq on bad information, but each and every late-nighter has poked fun at him: for his golfing, his drones, his rapidly graying hair, for being second in command to Valerie Jarrett, for "Obamacare," for his birth certificate. Even hosts with a political ideology front and center are comics first, which means they are guided by two premises: that the emperor has no clothes and that a great joke is a great joke.

4. Some subjects are out of bounds.

Are there things we should never joke about? Sept. 11. O.J. Katrina. After each of those events, curmudgeons told us nobody could ever joke about them.

You never want to joke about the tragedy itself. But late-night hosts have always found a way to put those untouchables into the monologue. The key is to find the right way in, which means waiting until the surrounding players surface. With O.J.

Simpson, it was the cast of clowns at the circus of his trial. With Katrina, it was the incompetence of FEMA. The Sept. 11 jokes hit on the tangential topics and subsequent scares: Duct tape stopping anthrax - really? The TSA and the underwear bomber.

Bin Laden himself. I love this joke: Bin Laden is the 27th of 51 brothers and sisters. See, it's always the middle child who is the problem.

How do hosts fill up the monologue until they can make the untouchable topics touchable? They use these stories: people doing silly, harmless things (thank you, man in Florida who had sex with a tree); the never-ending supply of politicians saying dumb things (thank you, Ben Carson); celebrities doing dumb things (thank you, Lindsay Lohan). And thank you to the Internet for bringing us these stories. And thank you, Al Gore, for inventing an Internet. Which, by the way is not a myth; he really invented it.

5 . The golden age of late night is dead.

For Carson fans, it died in 1992. For Jay fans, in 2014. For Dave fans, in 2015. For Sykes fans, in 2010. Read the comments section every time there's an article about late night. Fans of Johnny wish he was still on the air; Jay viewers thought he was the funniest; Letterman supporters insisted he was the best.

Here's the truth: Late night is not dead, it's not in a coma, it doesn't even have a cold - it's just . . . different.

Yes, it's not your grandfather's late-night show. Fifteen million of us don't have an appointment at 11:35 p.m. with Carson. Instead, we have a lot of choices, all of them good, and we can watch them anytime, anywhere. If you liked Johnny's monologue and Jay's take on politics and pop culture, check out Seth Meyers, Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O'Brien and, I'm guessing in a few months, Stephen Colbert. If you like a host with a bit more edge and can't imagine a night without Dave, check out John Oliver, Bill Maher and Larry Wilmore. If you want a complete show that's part late night, part prime-time variety, there's Jimmy Fallon - who, by the way, has redefined what late night is and can be.

Think of it this way. The king may be gone (and I became a comedy writer because of Johnny), and the two immediate heirs to the throne have left the castle, but there a lot of princes out there who are making sure that late night is alive and does more than survive, it thrives. To quote Bruno Mars: Don't believe me, just watch.

Macks is a seven-time Emmy nominee who wrote for Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" for 22 years. He's the author of "Monologue: What Makes America Laugh Before Bed."


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